Positive Intent and Creating Shared Power
Let’s take a common statement that preschool teachers might make. Like this one:
“Please don’t throw shaving cream at me.”
You can say it with different intentions. You can impose your will on the child and give them the glaring eye. You can evoke fear with a snap and bite to the phrase. You can be really silly and give a good silly voice while you say it. You can expect them to not do it and treat them with respect, as an equal. The intent behind the words is part of the overall message you are trying to send.
The intent behind your words and actions are not misread by children. What you mean by your words versus what you say with your words can often be two very different things.
You can say, “Please don’t throw shaving cream at me,” but actually mean, “YOU’RE GONNA GET WHAT’S COMING TO YOU, GOT IT?”
You can say, “Please don’t throw shaving cream at me,” but actually mean, “I Love You dear, but I can’t let you throw shaving cream at me.
The second meaning has positive intent behind it. It treats the child as a capable person. It lets them know that you respect them.
It does NOT tell them that you have real ultimate galactic power and can destroy their world at a moment’s notice (even though you may wish you did).
When the intent behind your words are authoritative and demanding, a preschool-aged child (who is in Erikson’s stage of Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt), will come back at you with the same exact intent. They will try and assert themselves because they are trying to develop a sense of their own power.
The result? A Power Struggle.
You can almost hear the announcer.
“In the far left corner, wearing a blue apron with green trim, weighing in at 200 lbs. Teacher! In the far right corner, wearing a pink Hello Kitty sweater, weighing in at 43 lbs. Child! LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!”
It doesn’t matter who wins in this case. At the end of it all, you will have two very ticked off people and neither person will feel very good about what just took place.
Most importantly, when you are constantly engaged in power struggles with children, they learn to doubt their feelings and autonomy which has devastating effects on future development. Some psychologists directly relate the shame and doubt developed in this stage to obsessive behaviors: if I follow rules exactly the way they are prescribed, then I won’t feel shame.
It’s healthier to be firm and assertive, but always with an intent to be positive. This creates shared power. Giving children choices empowers them. Allowing them to explore develops autonomy and a sense of their own abilities. It develops confidence.
Think about the question: Would you rather be right or have peace? If you want to be right, watch out! The child does too.